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WWII milestone mission woven into Hastings' family history

Robert Lambert of Hastings enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942 and served on the destroyer escort Pillsbury.  (Photo provided by Lambert family)

Heather Tolsma

Contributing Writer

 

Bob Lambert of Hastings was a quiet man who never said much about his experiences serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. 

But the scrapbook his wife, Florence, painstakingly put together speaks for him - even now, 15 years after his death.

The dark blue volume — emblazoned on the cover with “U.S. Navy - Robert Lambert” — is filled with personal mementoes and newspaper articles, including some about one of the Navy’s “most unusual World War II missions”  involving the celebrated capture of a German U-boat and the acquisition of critical intelligence codes that may have helped hasten the war’s end.

Lambert, among some other crewmen, was an important part of that mission.

His son, Dean Lambert of Hastings, said military tests showed that his father, who enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 1, 1942, had a high aptitude for diesel mechanics. Those skills made him valuable on the Pillsbury, a destroyer escort.

And, at the time of Lambert’s enlistment, the need for destroyer escorts was critical in the fight against the German Navy. 

Lambert’s aptitude with diesel engines was vital to his lieutenant aboard the Pillsbury. The lieutenant had fought in World War I and “knew nothing about diesels. … He was a ‘steam man.’ So when my dad got on board, he and the lieutenant had a talk. He said: ‘You take care of me, and I’ll take care of you.’

“And so my dad ran everything down there and, when anybody above asked the lieutenant  anything, he kind of had all the answers because my dad had told him what to say!” Dean Lambert said, chuckling.

So the stage was set for the historic mission that followed:

“In the spring of 1944, a remarkable and radical idea began to take shape in the mind of U.S. Navy Capt. Daniel V. Gallery. As commander of the Task Group 22.3, Gallery led one of the several ‘hunter-killer’ units — comprised of small aircraft carriers and accompanying destroyer escorts — that were helping to overcome the menace German U-boats had posed to transatlantic shipping since the outbreak of World War II,” an American History article reported 50 years after the mission.

The article, written by Lawrence Cortesi, continues: “ ‘Why not try to board and capture the next submarine we fetch up from the depths?’ thought Gallery. The concept was an improbable one. The U.S. Navy had not captured an enemy warship on the high seas since shortly after the War of 1812.”

Gallery is described in the article as an unconventional naval officer who didn't always do things by the book. The unit under his command joined the fight against U-boats on the Atlantic sea lanes in January 1944.  In addition to the escort carrier Guadalcanal, with its 26 Wildcats and 20 Avengers, the hunter-killer group included five destroyer escorts — the Chatelain, Flaherty, Jenks, Pope, and the Pillsbury.

During his earlier encounters with U-boats, Gallery had become familiar with how these submarine commanders would behave during battles.

Years later, in an interview with a naval historian in 1969, Gallery said, “I knew that, when you got one cornered and hammered him with depth charges and punished him so much that he figured he was finished and going to sink, it was standard operating procure for submarines to blow their tanks and come up and abandon ship… I figured that, in the heat of battle, it was quite possible that a sub skipper would figure that he had ‘had it’ prematurely and surface before he really had to… If we could get aboard in time and close the scuttling valves, we might be able to keep it afloat and tow it home.”

Gallery’s idea was a long shot, but the prize -- submarine codes that could provide a wealth of intelligence data -- was worth the risk, his superior officers agreed, but only if the opportunity presented itself, according to the Cortesi article.

Before the task group’s departure on its third mission, Gallery outlined the strategy to his officers: First, force the submarine to surface, then create such panic among the U-boat sailors that they would abandon the craft early, allowing the American sailors to board the sub and capture it.

Gallery’s unit departed for the eastern Atlantic in mid-May of 1944. Three weeks later, they had failed to detect a single German submarine. Then, just as they were beginning to run low on fuel, they were notified of an enemy submarine being tracked off the African Gold Coast. The destroyer escorts confirmed the location of the vessel and went into action, attacking with a pattern of 20 small explosives, called hedgehogs, designed to detonate upon contact with a submarine’s hull.

On June 4, 1944, Wildcats, patrolling overhead, made a visual sighting of the U-boat “running just below the surface, like a huge black whale,” Cortesi writes. “Moments after the resulting huge explosions, an oil slick appeared on the surface. ‘You’ve struck oil,’ radioed Ensign (Jack) Cadle (from one of the Wildcats). ‘Sub is surfacing!’ ” 

The German sub “had been cruising slowly on battery power at a depth of 200 feet, with part of the crew just sitting down to lunch, when the watchstanders detected the sounds of approaching ships’ propellers,” the Cortesi article describes.

The U-boat captain, Harald Lange, took them up to periscope depth to investigate when all hell broke loose.

Years later, submarine crewman Hans Decker recalled the depth-charge attack, describing how the vessel “shuddered violently, the lights went out and, amid the din, we heard the most dreaded of noises to submariners: Water rushing in. Sure enough, someone shouted, ‘Ruptured hull in the control room!’ And, in the engine room, the flashlights played on streams of oil and water from broken pipelines.

“The boat was out of control now and down over 230 meters. The pressure hull wouldn’t take that very long. ‘Take us up! Take us up before it’s too late!’ cried Lange.”

According to Decker’s account, that was the last organized order aboard the sub. Someone blew the ballast tanks “and, the next thing we knew, we were on the surface,” he recalled.

When the German submarine “porpoised into view in the midst of the American formation, the Pillsbury, and Jenks joined the Chatelain in firing all of their anti-aircraft guns while the Wildcats strafed it with  their .50-calibre machine guns,” the Cortesi article continues. 

Lange was sure his sub was doomed, so he ordered the crew to abandon ship. In their panic, they neglected to activate the timers for more than a dozen demolition charges that had been laid along the keel in case they had to abandon the vessel.

“Scrambling out of the hatches and into the hail of gunfire, the men jumped overboard,” Cortesi’s story describes. “One crewman was killed and another — Lange — was wounded by shrapnel.”

Fifty-eight survivors from the submarine were rescued from the ocean.

Meanwhile, “Lieutenant Albert David and his boarding party from the Pillsbury had already plopped into the sea in their whaleboat and started for the half-submerged submarine. Still operating under battery power and with its rudder jammed hard over by the depth-charge attack, the abandoned craft was now describing a large circle at about 7 knots.”

Amid seas about 7 feet high, it took the agile maneuvering of the helmsman and a leap to the deck of the vessel by a former ex-high-jumper to secure the whaleboat with a line, the story continues.

The boarding party went through the sub’s main hatch and into darkened compartments, knowing that, if any demolition charges had been set, they could be blown to bits. They broke into the safe to get code books, recovered the submarine’s cipher machine and other vital documents.

When Gallery radioed for permission to proceed to Dakar, Senegal, Tenth Fleet headquarters instead ordered the unit to Bermuda.

A major problem at that point was the fact that the task force was almost out of fuel and Bermuda was 1,700 miles to the northwest. The appearance of a tanker three days later was “as welcome as an angel from heaven,” the story relates.

It was a strange procession that pulled up to berth in Bermuda. Upon arrival, Lange and his men were confined to a special compound and the submarine was kept under heavy guard while experts studied the vessel’s construction, equipment and weaponry on board.

Remarkably, the U-boat capture was kept secret until after the war was over.

Later accounts of the mission and the incredible capture called the sub an intelligence treasure trove.

“In addition to placing the Americans’ hands on the first German acoustic torpedoes they had seen, the submarine yielded a top-secret Enigma cipher machine, code books revealing the periodic changes in the German code, and all of the current U-board operational orders and charts,” Cortesi reports. “For the remainder of the war, the Americans would be able to read messages between the Kriegsmarine commander Karl Donitz and his submariners with the same speed as the Germans themselves.”

As for Germany’s Donitz? He didn’t learn of the sub’s capture until after the end of the war.

Lambert was honorably discharged Oct. 22, 1945, having received the Presidential Unit Citation with one Bronze Star and two Stars for fighting in the American and European theaters. He had reached the rank of Chief Motor Mechanic by the end of his military career.

He and his wife, who went by the nickname Mickey, settled in Hastings and had two children, Dean Lambert and Sue (Lambert) Jackson. He helped build the East Side Lumber Company and owned Hastings Bowl from 1962 until he retired in 1982. He was an active member in the Hastings Masons, Hastings Moose Lodge, and Hastings Elks Lodge.

Despite all the news accounts and photos and honors earned, Lambert’s part in that mission to capture the submarine, a pivotal moment for the Navy during World War II, was not something he talked about - except one time, his son remembered.

“We might have been 6 or 7. We were in Chicago at my mother’s sister’s house and we went to the submarine (where it is displayed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry)  and there was a chief there. The chief was going over everything on a submarine and they had a short movie on it.”

During the movie, his father leaned over to him and said: “That’s not right. That’s not how it happened. We towed it for three days.’ And that’s all he ever said about it.”

Dean Lambert said his father’s behavior never changed, according to his mother, before, during or after he served in the military.

And, while he was away, he occasionally would send poetry to his wife.

But there’s one other story that has to do with that U-boat capture that wasn’t reported in the history books — and the Lambert family knows it well. It has to do with a smart set of luggage that Lambert’s wife, Mickey, gave him as a gift during the war.

A lieutenant attached to one of the crews involved with the capture of sub liked the look of that luggage and asked Lambert how much he would accept to part with it.

Lambert’s reply was that it was a gift from his wife; the set was not for sale.

The lieutenant was not discouraged. He had a pair of night vision binoculars and the pocket watch that had been used by the U-boat captain, Lange, to calibrate his sextant; both had been confiscated from the vessel during the mission.

He offered these items, saying, “Look, will you take this for your luggage?”

Lambert did.

It doesn’t take any words for his children to know how important that mission was for their country and for their father, even though he didn’t speak of it but once.

Today, that scrapbook, a timepiece and binoculars attest to its meaning for that quiet man from Hastings.

 

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